Better Living Through Modern Chemo-stry
Last updated: June 2023
Almost everyone in the world has heard that word, “chemo.” Even if you don’t know anyone with cancer, have never had cancer yourself, have never heard tales of cancer patients, you have heard of chemo. If you ask 100 random people what acute lymphocytic leukemia is, you’re likely to get 100 people staring at you as if you’d asked where Myanmar is located, or who fought in the French and Indian war, or how do Minons reproduce. If you ask those same people what chemo is, on the other hand, all 100 people will answer without hesitation. It’s a universal cancer touchstone, and it is as identifiable as the Burger King or The Hollywood Sign. What, though, is chemo? What does it consist of? What does it do?
If you continue on and ask those same 100 people what chemo actually is and how it’s administered, you’ll get a range of answers. A kind of drink? Tiny robots? Some sort of laser? The simple fact is while many people have heard the word, very few actually know what it actually consists of, much like the Chicken McNugget (my research points to horse nipples and pencil shavings – delicious, delicious, pencil shavings). It’s something that most patients have to deal with at some point, and although more and more treatment options are becoming available every day, chemo is still the mainstay for treating many forms of cancer. In the last ten years or so, the treatment of cancer has improved in leaps and bounds, but there are still certainties when someone begins this most infamous of treatments.
Bald is beautiful
Like many other things, most people get their info about chemo from television and movies. It usually involves a spouse/sibling/old friend of the protagonist dying, and their last wish (shocker) is for him or her to meet the people who poisoned them. A hairless head, barely being able to speak, and for some reason, full eyebrows are pretty much a staple. Now, there are certainly times when this is what chemo actually looks like, and people who receive extremely strong treatment can be laid up for the duration. In reality, though, there are many more cancer patients like me, who receive chemo on an outpatient basis, and actually live a sort of life while it’s going on. Let’s break it down.
For those who may be shaky on the details, chemo is not, in fact, tiny robots, although it sure would be cool if it was. Chemo drugs are actually a type of poison that targets fast growing cells in the body. Fast growing means the cells divide rapidly, which, coincidentally is exactly what cancer does! Cancer isn’t inherently bad like bacteria or a virus, it’s just cells that have had their instructions mixed up and they think they need to keep growing as fast as possible.
The reason cancer kills is because these cells keep dividing and replicating until they completely annihilate the other body structures around them, some of which you may need. Like a brain. Or a stomach. Or a duodenum (google it). “But Dan,” I’m sure you’re asking, “why does hair and the boys downstairs take a hit when you get chemo?” Well, since hair and sperm cells both divide rapidly, they fall prey to the drugs coursing throughout the body, an indiscriminate killer of fast growing cells. Hopefully it kills the cells of the tumor before you lose too much of the other two. Then again, if you lose all your hair then the sperm cells are much less likely to get used. #baldisbeautiful
Infusion petting zoo
How is it administered? Well, first they tell you how many “cycles” you are going to get, and how long those cycles are going to last. For me, it was six cycles, with three weeks between each. So, eighteen weeks altogether (yay math!). Some people have more cycles and less time in between, or vice versa. It all depends on what chemo drugs you are taking and what type of cancer you have. Coming to get the treatment, though, works pretty much the same everywhere. When you first arrive, they take blood tests to see if you are still alive. If you are, then they green light the treatment for the day, and you wait to get taken back into what I like to call the “infusion petting zoo.”
It’s a large place where there is an assortment of cancer patients getting all their different kinds of chemo, and people come in and out of your booth (pen) and give you things like ice cream and scented oils and sandwiches, and pat (pet) you on the shoulder and tell you to relax. As if. Then, right when you’ve got all your blankets and electronics set up the way you want, the nurse comes in dressed like a garbageman at Chernobyl and hooks you up to an eighteen-piece IV setup. This bulky system of plastic valves and spigots is designed so that not one single drop of this extremely powerful poison accidentally gets on the nurse or anyone else in the zip code. Then they turn it on and pump it into you.
Don’t hug the poop bucket
It’s a surreal feeling, the first few times you get chemo. Surreal, and supremely anti-climactic. Why? Well, because even us cancer patients fall prey to the same TV and movie stereotypes, and we expect the chemo to put us on the floor instantly, hugging one bucket for puking and one for pooping (don’t hug the poop bucket). It isn’t like that at all, though. You get the chemo infusion, it lasts anywhere from thirty minutes to a few hours, and then you go home. That’s it. No one gives you a special card to carry, your hair doesn’t fall out in one big plop like you just Nair’d Bigfoot, and you gotta go “cause we really need that chair.” It’s just kind of done, and all the anticipation and hopes and fears you had about the horror of what’s to come kind of fades slowly like the end of a rock song. That night, to go to bed, you put your life’s plans and your puke bucket aside and you prey to God almighty or whatever deity you even peripherally believe in to make the medicine work, and you try to sleep. That’s it, no fanfare, no cake, no Tweet from Taylor Swift.
As with most illness-related issues, you can’t really know it until you are in it, and while it’s the same with chemo, I’ve given you the best picture I can of what chemo is like for most. There may be some differences, but the feelings, the emotions, the fears, the hopes, and the “that’s it?” is fairly universal. So, now, when anyone asks you about cancer, you have a little bit of a better idea how we live better lives through modern chemostry.
How do you feel about your support system?